What Do Law Students Think?

Hannah Barton is a rising junior at Northwestern University and an intern at the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession.  She is also considering a career as an attorney.  In this series, Hannah will interview a diverse cross-section of law students about their law school expectations, experiences and aspirations. Has the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the legal profession’s reactions and responses altered their perceptions about the practice of law? Will patterns emerge in the subjects’ responses?  Will their thoughts align with your assumptions about law students?  Read “What Do Law Students Think?” to find out.

by Hannah Barton

Megan Mumford graduated from Yale Law School in the Class of 2020. She is from Austin Texas, and attended Texas A&M University for undergrad, where she received a Bachelors in Political Science and Spanish, as well as a Masters of Public Administration. After graduation, she worked at the Brookings Institute doing economic policy research before going to law school.

As a high school student who loved debate and a Political Science major interested in government, it wasn’t a big shock when Mumford decided to go to law school. She said it was more of a surprise to friends and family when she decided to take time working in economic policy first, but she wanted to explore other options before making the large financial decision of attending law school. Her mother, who stopped practicing law once Mumford was born, was very supportive, yet cautious of her daughter’s career choice. When asked if she would recommend law school to anyone considering it, Mumford says it depends on your goals: “You shouldn’t do it just because it’s something to do. It’s a huge financial risk so you need to have a clear purpose for why you’re going, but if you do have that clear purpose and school options that can help you achieve your goals that you would enjoy, it’s definitely worth pursuing”.

With an interest in litigation and public policy, Mumford is going to work at a DC law firm, and in a year she will start a federal clerkship in Philadelphia. Mumford sees value in a lawyer’s ability to advocate for people who have started off at a disadvantage: “if you can find areas where the law is on their side that can be a really great equalizer, whether its a landlord who’s taking advantage of a situation or an employer, when the law is on your side… that can help equalize power balances”. Since the pandemic has highlighted these power imbalances, she hopes lawyers will think more about how they spend their time on public interest work.

I focused on sexual harassment issues in the judiciary as former clerks of several long-standing judges began to step forward with their stories. I primarily applied for clerkships with women judges as a result of this. 

Mumford explains that there was a large emphasis at Yale for students to apply for clerkships. She was especially interested in clerking because of her desire to pursue a career in litigation, but the experience is still relevant for corporate lawyers. However, there are many barriers to getting a clerkship. As a graduate with a large amount of student loans, Mumford recognizes that the salary of a clerk is not enough for many students to survive. She says “a clerkship is a large pay cut, so there is a big divide between people who are willing to take the pay cut and those who are in a lot of debt”, and therefore students who were able to pay out of pocket for law school have greater access to this opportunity.

Mumford also addresses clerking as a female, and the history of sexual assault in this area. “As a YLW Board Member, I focused on sexual harassment issues in the judiciary as former clerks of several long-standing judges began to step forward with their stories. I primarily applied for clerkships with women judges as a result of this and I’m excited to clerk for Judge Pratter because of her support for gender equity. However, male students don’t generally find themselves in the position of limiting their search in such ways,” she explains. Mumford hopes to change the profession in order to diminish these barriers, and in the meantime, she laughingly says, “I’ve tried to shift my perspective to: if I was a man with a lot of money, what decision would I make here? And then figure out a way to try to make it work” (although she also acknowledges as a white woman it is a privilege to even be able to pretend).

Regarding the barriers in the legal profession, Mumford finds the lack of diversity “really surprising, considering the values the profession purports to espouse”. Although her graduating class was relatively diverse and had more women than men, she still sees the majority of lawyers making partner at most firms are white men. She hopes as graduates focus more on what the senior leadership at places they want to work at looks like, employers will think more from a recruitment standpoint on how they want to accept applicants. She says that during job interviews she has started asking questions “that kind of get at the issue without sounding accusatory”, such as ‘how common is it for partners at your firm to come from a dual-income family?’ as a way of capturing gender equality and how many men in the firm also experience a life of having both spouses working.

Mumford’s experience on the Yale Law Women Board has provided her with great insight into the condition of women in the legal profession. She also cites the National Association for Law Placement as an informational resource for demographic data on junior and senior attorneys. As for her other activities as a student, she had a very educational experience on the prestigious Yale Law Journal. However, Mumford wants to remind law students that the organizations “you work the hardest to get in aren’t always the ones you’ll enjoy the most, or make lasting friendships in”, and if you don’t get into one organization, you will probably enjoy another one even more.

The main difficulty Mumford has faced in law school has not been the school work. She says she has been confronted about assumptions she has had about the world and has needed to start thinking about issues from many different angles. “If you come in as someone who wants to help the world and then you realize the different ways trying to help the world actually conflict with each other,” she says, “working through where you stand in the world and where you want to leave your mark on it is really challenging”.